John McDonough: “You don’t have to know everything before you start recording and performing”

“You don’t have to know everything before you start recording and performing.” When I was younger I had this idea that I had to be proficient in all styles of music and I had to be proficient with all techniques before I could really put myself out there in terms of writing, recording and performing. […]

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“You don’t have to know everything before you start recording and performing.” When I was younger I had this idea that I had to be proficient in all styles of music and I had to be proficient with all techniques before I could really put myself out there in terms of writing, recording and performing. This just is not true. I do believe that it is good to always be pushing yourself to be a better musician and to expand your abilities, but you can do that while you are out there working as well.

As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing John McDonough.

With intricate guitar work, passionate vocals, engaging lyrics, and 25 years experience performing in Austin, Texas, John McDonough has honed a modern singer/songwriter sound rarely heard. Since retiring from psychotherapy in 2011, John has released five CD’s of original music, played over 500 gigs, performed in eleven music festivals, made several appearances on local and national radio, performed on FOX Television Good Day Austin, and toured the United States. John’s previous three releases, ‘Dreams and Imagination,’ Surrounding Colors,’ and ‘Can You See Me Now’ all received great reviews and airplay all over the United States and Europe with all three releases spending six straight months on the Americana Radio Chart in the United States. In 2020, McDonough recorded an acoustic CD of his favorite songs from previous releases and relocated to the Chicago area. John is very excited to release ‘Second Chances’ on March 17th, 2021, and tour Europe and the United States.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Thanks very much for having me! I come from a big family, five kids! The oldest is a girl, then a boy, me, another boy, and the baby is another girl, so I am definitely a middle child. Growing up was not easy for me, a bunch of starts and stops. I moved around a lot and went to three different high schools in three different states my four years of high school. It was very difficult to have any continuity with relationships and personal passions.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have always loved to sing. As a kid I would crank my stereo, sing along, and pretend I was on stage. I have also always loved to write. I wrote a couple novels by the time I was twelve, and I remember always being so excited for creative writing in elementary school! I dabbled with the guitar growing up, and started to really concentrate on being a musician in college. One night I was in a bar listening to a solo artist, and he let me get up and play a few songs. I was terrified! I was so nervous I could hardly sing, but it felt so good to be doing what I had only dreamed about, and I knew I wanted to perform again!

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I was doing a very intimate show about five years ago in Texas, and a couple were there with their adult son. The son was in his early twenties and severely autistic. He could not speak, and could only communicate by spelling out words, letter by letter, on a special tablet. I was playing a song of mine called ‘Nowhere Else To Run’ about the Neue Wache(New Guard House)in Berlin. It is an extremely moving monument where buried under a beautiful marble statue of a mother and her dead son are the remains of an unknown concentration camp victim and an unknown German soldier. In front of the statue is the quote, “Dedicated to the victims of war and Tyranny.” In my song the concentration camp survivor is talking to the soldier and trying to find some comfort in their situation. As I was singing this song, the young man started to make some very loud noises and even started to bang the empty chair in front of him on the floor. I wasn’t sure what was happening and did my best to stay focused and complete the song. After I finished, the mom told me that her son was writing to her “they are talking to each other in their grave!” He was so moved by the song and his “disruption” was his only way of expressing himself. I was so moved that he really understood the song, and that I had touched him. I also learned a valuable lesson that night. When I feel I am not connecting with the audience, I remember that young man and remind myself that I really don’t know how people are taking in my music. A persons reaction or behavior might not be what it seems.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I remember one of my very first professional gigs, and I was horribly nervous again. I started a song I knew like the back of my hand and all of a sudden I totally blanked on the lyrics! It was so bad I don’t think I remembered those lyrics for weeks! Finally I just had to stop playing the guitar and said, “I am sorry, but I cannot remember the words to save my life.” My older sister was in the audience and called out, “one too many beers?” The crowd laughed, and I laughed, I said something like, “yes! That is it!” We all laughed again and I started a new song. I learned that night that the crowd wants to have fun with you, and if I as the performer can roll with whatever is happening, then they will generally happily join me. My sisters quick thinking saved me that night, and with so much time and experience, I can save myself now.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

One of the benefits of this pandemic is that is has given me some downtime where I was able to just practice the guitar and work on those skills. I also took this time to work on some new, more interesting arrangements for some older songs. I realized that some of these older songs were quite good, and with a little tweaking I could take them to the next level. I have wanted to do an acoustic CD for a while, and with these new arrangements working so well, I decided 2020 was the perfect time to do it. The CD, called ‘Second Chances,’ came out better than I had hoped or expected, and I am humbled by the great reviews it is already receiving. I am so excited to share it with everyone. I am releasing it on March 17th, 2021 and can’t wait to start playing live again to support it.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

As a gay man, I really appreciate your interest in diversity in entertainment and really appreciate the opportunity to talk about this. I talked about how my childhood was not easy, and another reason for that was my own struggle with my sexuality. Back in the 70’s, 80’s, and even 90’s, there were so few minorities being represented on TV or in the movies, much less minorities being represented in a positive way. This applies to the LGBT community, African Americans, Hispanics, women, etc. I am so thankful that now in 2021, not only are minorities being represented in a positive manner, but they are being represented in their full spectrum. A kid can turn on the TV today and see a gay man as a professional athlete, a flamboyant singer, an introspective doctor, and so on. The same goes for minorities in race and gender as well. Kids can not only see that it is ok being a minority, but you also don’t have to fit into some silly stereotype while positively embracing your identity. We still have a long way to go, but I am so thankful for how much better it is. OK, three reasons. First, representation in entertainment will affirm to the kids out there that they are not alone. Second, representation, in a positive manner, will help to destroy stereotypes and help to end bigotry. Third, representation affirms that we are all important, we all have and will continue to make positive contributions to our world, and with that understanding we can continue to move closer to our ideals of “…all men(and women)are created equal…”

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. “You don’t have to know everything before you start recording and performing.” When I was younger I had this idea that I had to be proficient in all styles of music and I had to be proficient with all techniques before I could really put myself out there in terms of writing, recording and performing. This just is not true. I do believe that it is good to always be pushing yourself to be a better musician and to expand your abilities, but you can do that while you are out there working as well.
  2. “You can still be successful even if you aren’t a superstar.” When I was younger, it seemed that you were only successful if you were selling millions albums and selling out arena’s. The truth is, very very few people make it to that level, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a very successful and satisfying career in music. In fact, at this point in my life, I dream of playing small theaters where I can really engage with the audience. I would choose that over an arena.
  3. “Don’t get down if you feel people aren’t listening or paying attention.” I have played, and continue to play, a lot of gigs in bars or restaurants where people are talking, eating and drinking, and it can sometimes be very discouraging. But the truth is, people are listening, and you never know what story or what song is having a big impact on someone even if it is not obvious. I have played gigs where I felt I was total background entertainment, and at the end of the night a person came up to me, who appeared to not be listening, and talked about a song of mine that really moved them. Always perform like it is a big, important show, and always perform to your best ability.
  4. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the music business.” When I was younger, I often didn’t ask good questions to the music business professionals because I was scared to look like I didn’t have the knowledge and experience of a professional. The truth is I didn’t have it, and that’s ok! Now I will ask my manger and promoters all sorts of questions, and they appreciate me wanting to be involved instead of expecting them to do everything.
  5. “Celebrate the small successes.” This is a tough business, and like I said earlier, very very few people make it to a level where they are selling millions of CD’s and selling out arenas. When I was younger, it always felt like the top of the mountain was so far away, and I would never get there. I am still not there, but instead of feeling down or discouraged about it, I try to always give myself credit when I make an improvement in my abilities, when I write a song that is better than the last, when I book a great gig and perform well, etc. I try to celebrate those milestones, and this keeps me motivated and positive!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Engage in all aspects of being a musician and a performer. Write, record, gig, make music videos, live stream, go on tour, etc. When I am feeling burned out from gigging, it is wonderful to relax at home and write and record. When that process is over I feel rejuvenated and excited to get back out there and play live again. When I am feeling stuck in my writing or stuck in my growth as a guitar player, I love to take a break from it and make a music video. I enjoy the different creative outlet in the filming and editing of a music video, and it is still something that is benefiting my music career over all. If you are feeling burnt out with your regular gigs, hit the road. It’s always fun to see new places and have new experiences, and then it’s nice to return to the routine of your normal gigs where you live.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The meaning behind the title of my 2016 release, ‘Surrounding Colors,’ is that I am happiest and most fulfilled when I am surrounded and open to people of all different colors, whether that be gender, sexuality, race, religion, etc. My guard easily goes up when I learn someone is religious because I immediately think they are going to have negative views about homosexuality, and therefore about me. This is not always true, and I have many friends who are quite religious while also embracing me and supporting the LGBT community. I am very thankful for many people who have added so much to my life, and I think how it would have been my loss if I had never given them a chance because of their religious views. I wish people would honestly look at the groups they have bigotry and prejudice against, and then seek out some people in that group to get to know. Odds are those preconceived notions will be destroyed, and the individual will have added some new, wonderful people to his or her life. This could have a ripple effect that could really make the world a better, more peaceful place.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My father died almost a month ago exactly, and he was very generous. I was about 25 at the time, working two jobs and trying to work on my music on the side. I just didn’t have the time or energy to really improve as a singer and a musician and really try to have a career in music. I asked my father for financial support so I could go back to college and study music. He had already put me through my four year undergraduate program, and it would have been perfectly understandable if he had said no. He did support me, and I was able to return to college and study piano, voice, music theory, etc. It was a wonderful time in my life, and without it I am certain I would not be where I am today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have another musician friend, and one day we were talking about the industry, and I was saying, “I don’t know what to focus on. Should I concentrate on recording, gigging, making music videos, live streaming?” I felt like I was in a rut, and I didn’t know how to get out of it and try to get to the next level. He said, “you have to do it all, and do it all the time.” While that felt a little overwhelming, it is also so true. This business is so competitive, and there are so many talented people, you have to “do it all, and do it all the time.” I remind myself of that quote often, and try to live up to it. While it can feel overwhelming, it actually can also help fight burn out for the reasons I talked about earlier. For example, making a music video can be a fun break from a period of writers block. Recording can be a fun break from gigging. Live streaming can be a fun break from practicing, especially this last year during the pandemic.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

This is so hard to choose just one. I would love to be able to sit down with Billy Joel. I have been a huge fan of his forever, I think he is very smart and very funny, and I know I would learn so much from him, while also having a great time in his company! So Billy, if you are reading this, hit me up!!!

How can our readers follow you online?

Please go to my twitter page, which I just set up. It is JohnMLIVE. There, in the first pinned tweet, are the links for my website, my Facebook music page, my Instagram page, and my YouTube Channel. My name is long and hard to spell, so I am hoping people can easily go to JohnMLIVE on twitter, see the links in pinned tweet, and choose which platform they would like to follow me on.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Thank you very much. These were great questions and I really enjoyed answering them!

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